Hospitals' new specialist: Social media manager
■ As Facebook, Twitter and other technologies become more pervasive, more hospitals are hiring staff members dedicated solely to social media -- and getting physicians to use these tools.
By Bob Cook — Posted Nov. 8, 2010
For otolaryngologist Douglas Backous, MD, Twitter and blogging were "like speaking a foreign language." So he went to his hospital and got himself a translator: Dana Lewis, hired by Seattle's Swedish Medical Center to handle all things social media.
Lewis is part of a trend in a new and growing type of hospital employment: the social media manager.
Technically, she's called the interactive marketing specialist. But she, and others like her, are being charged by their hospitals to handle such duties as overseeing their social media presence, communicating with patients through social media -- and, in many cases, teaching affiliated or employed physicians how to use social media. The idea is that by having a person dedicated to social media, the hospital can use the technology to strengthen its connections with all of what organizations like to call their stakeholders, which include the physicians who refer patients through their doors.
"Part of why hospitals are heading in this direction is part of the general zeitgeist, the general awareness that these ways of communication and connecting with each other are transforming" hospitals and their relationships, said Robert Matney, a partner who follows health and social media for Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Social Web Strategies.
Social media managers are hired by hospitals that already have a presence on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or other sites. Usually, the position grows out of a realization that social media require more time and effort -- and have a worthwhile payoff.
That's not to say that hospitals without social media managers don't see the technology as important. Or that the social media manager is the only one expected to know anything about Facebook, and how people converse on it.
At Swedish, Communications Director Melissa Tizon wasn't planning to hire anyone dedicated solely to social media until she saw a post on Twitter by Lewis that she was one month from graduating from college and didn't have a job. Lewis is founder of the #hcsm (a Twitter "hashtag" descriptor that is short for "health care social media") Sunday night chats on the site.
Tizon hired Lewis, who started in July and quickly trained physicians (and Swedish's chief executive officer) about subjects such as how to post and respond to others' posts on Twitter; the legal and ethical rules for doctors on social media; how to interact with patients through social media; and how to use social media to make yourself a "thought leader" in your field.
Lewis, who got interested in health care and social media as a patient (she has type 1 diabetes), said her job is not to sell physicians who are skeptical about social media, "though I'd love for them to try." Instead, she responds to requests from physicians such as Dr. Backous, who wanted to use social media to help promote Swedish's Center for Hearing and Skull Base Surgery.
"I use Dana a lot as a resource. Like if you're adapting an electronic medical record. You have superusers to help you come up to speed," Dr. Backous said. "As you get into it, you realize it's useful. Someone like Dana continues the momentum."
An extension of public relations
The number of hospitals with staff members dedicated to social media is unknown. But a check of SimplyHired.com, an online jobs board aggregator, shows more hospitals advertising for such positions, such as Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio; University Medical Center in Princeton, N.J.; and Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md. The latter is among the few that have stated how much it pays for the position -- somewhere in the $60,000- to $80,000-a-year range.
The position is new because social media hasn't been used by hospitals for long. According to University of Maryland Medical Center director of Web strategy Ed Bennett -- the closest to a historian the field has -- the first hospital YouTube account was up in 2006, and the first Twitter account started in 2008.
As of Oct. 19, 871 hospitals have 2,259 social media sites, according to Bennett's Hospital Social Network List, which he keeps on his blog. Bennett said his hospital has no one dedicated solely to social media, as do most on his list.
For years, the Mayo Clinic has had an active social media presence, but it was only in July that it dedicated its first staff member solely to it -- Lee Aase. He had worked in Mayo public relations, getting the clinic into social media in 2005 by recording its first podcast. Aase is now director of Mayo's Center for Social Media, and is involved not only with training Mayo's doctors, but also setting up a network that will teach outside hospitals and physician about social media.
"We're providing consultation to physicians who are interested in seeing how physicians could apply these tools, and training. The major focus has been just to facilitate," Aase said.
No physician is required to learn social media, he said. "If they don't want to do it, they won't be any good at it."
But Aase is an evangelist at Mayo for social media. On his own blog, Aase put up a Martin Luther-style 35 theses (instead of the Protestant Reformation leader's 95 -- Aase couldn't think of that many) that can be nailed to any hospital door to declare why social media must be adopted and embraced.
Reaching its potential
Matney said hiring social media managers is a sign that hospitals are taking the first steps to embrace the technology, though many hospital executives still don't see what the big deal is. The establishment of a social media manager is "a tactical response from an overworked team that doesn't understand the breadth of the issue."
Top executives "in the medical industry [have] not yet come to terms with the fact that this change is profound and pervasive," Matney said. "And it's a transformation in how business is getting done. The focus [of social media managers] by and large is marketing and public relations." Hospitals' social media efforts haven't expanded into all forms of communication -- such as how it might be used for patient handoffs, he said.
Social media are "about whole organization transformation, not really tactics. Though tactics are important."
Part of the problem, Matney acknowledged, is that there are little data to show hospital executives about the financial and quality-of-care effects of social media. However, one of Aase's theses refers to social media's relative small cost, given that programs generally are free: As investment approaches zero, return on investment approaches infinity.
At this point, Dana Lewis is talking to physicians at Swedish not so much about return on investment, but about tactics -- how to use social media presence to your advantage while not putting yourself in legal and ethical jeopardy. "We have an Internet postings policy. We have guidelines whether you're using social media at work, or personally. If you're tweeting for a professional Swedish account, we have more hands-on coaching."
Dr. Backous is one of the 100 physicians Lewis estimated she has worked with at Swedish. Dr. Backous has started blogging and posting to Twitter, though he said he doesn't do either as often as he would like.
But thanks to Lewis' help, Dr. Backous has become a true believer in social media, hearing from others in the otology and neurotology fields, and also getting the means to have closer communication with his deaf patients.
"This is mind-boggling," Dr. Backous said.
All the while, he is helping Swedish spread its name all over the world.